December 26, 2009

A Christmas Stollen

When it comes time for holiday potlucks, I generally try to bring something simple. Not because I'm lazy, which I am, or because I hate to cook, which I do--but because if your dish is disliked, you haven't invested much in it. Also, it should be something you yourself like in case you end up taking the bulk of it home. Cook to please yourself, as Julia Child said. I also try to represent a vegetable of some sort, as the dishes in my large Polish family are underrepresented in the greens and fiber department, and overloaded in the potato and white flour area. It's not that it's not delicious; I want my relatives to live a long time, and those odds change dramatically if they never poop again.

This year, however, a strange confluence of events (leading theory: late-night coffee, holiday magazine reading and restless ovaries) led me to believe I could make a stollen. Not just any old stollen: Martha Stewart's mother's stollen. The German fruit bread that spawned an empire. Having never baked anything more complicated than boxed muffins, I took it in the spirit of "what could possibly go wrong?"

Well, plenty. Because Martha has an army of tech crews, and I have a kitchenette and a cat. Here are the implied directions Herr Stewart has curiously omitted.

1. Make dough by adding wet ingredients to dry.

Apparently, when measuring flour, you're not actually supposed to measure flour. I did not know this, because I like to read. Choosing not to print the special little secrets that only those die-hard bakers are aware of deepens the rift between chefs and the Proletariat, and will be the reason so many white coats will be up against the wall when the revolution comes. Until that time, comrades, never pack the flour into the cup. Your bread will be too dry.

2. Add yeast, turn onto floured surface, and begin kneading.

You won't want to do this, because yeast smells like a foot. If you add it to warm water and add a pinch of sugar, you will get swamp paste. If you wait four minutes, it will smell like beer. This is when you should plop it in. When you shlomp the dough onto your floured surface, keep the flour handy, as the seven cups of fruit you're about to add will have a good deal of squish to combat. Whilst flouring said surface, this is about the time any normal American housecat will wonder what in heaven's name you're up to. They communicate this question by sticking their little cat feet in your flour and meowing, like, how dare you use one of my many flat surfaces for your weird food games. I scanned the instructions for a cunning device to dissuade uppity cats, but Martha had no suggestions. Improvisation being key in all cooking, I poofed flour at the cat until she took off. You may use that, if you want.

3. Add fruit and nuts. Knead until smooth, about ten minutes.

The dough will not be smooth. Ever. Also, ten minutes? Am I Popeye? No wonder my grandmother bought a bread machine; chronic masturbators don't have a baker's forearms. And a word on kneading: it's one of those verbs you don't much think about until you have to do it. In theory, I could knead--in theory, I could weld. It's not until you've got a bucket under a cow that you actually think critically about the verb "to milk." There's always that moment of chin-scratching, of harking back to a forgotten segment of Sesame Street or History channel to fill in the esoteric Jeopardy! gap. In my case, I remembered my grandmother, and pulled deep from my old-world roots. That lump of glue had the weight of generations beaten into it, even if those generations were only 140 pounds and had to take a running leap.

4. Let rise.

And rise, and rise. Basically, make the dough yesterday.

5. Bake at 350 for 35 minutes.

As long as you've got the time machine out, go back to your birth. Stand behind your baby self, wait until it's quiet, and yell "Boo!" This will instill a handy paranoia for later years that will cause you to time any baking endeavor at least 10 minutes earlier than is called for. The therapy and probable early death are totally worth it.

6. Enjoy.

Eat. Serve. Impress the crap out of your in-laws. Be terribly, terribly smug.